Against the Coursebook Flow for Better Listening

This post is informed by my own research (Jones, 2017), but isn’t exactly part of it. It was partly inspired by a eureka moment at the sink while washing the dishes. I was thinking about coursebooks, and particularly the flow, when the connection came to me. Anyway, more below.
Take a moment to think about how a coursebook lesson flows. No prizes for guessing that it follows PPP. Usually it’s this: Schema activation (recalling and retrieving knowledge about a topic) activity from an image, perhaps some ‘Starter’ questions. Present language, using reading and/or listening text (usually alternating across a unit, with a reading sub-unit and a listening sub-unit). Move on to a grammar exercise or two. Finish with a ‘free’ speaking activity.
I’m going to look at this listening flow. I’m not going to say that schema activation is a waste of time at all but, does it need to be done every time listening is taught? I am going to say no because we don’t always know or have the ability to make reliable predictions about the upcoming content of conversations we are likely to be involved in or overhear. There is also the fact that in a survey I conducted with teachers about what they state their practices and beliefs to be (Jones, 2017), activating schemata massively negatively correlated with teaching bottom-up listening skills. Basically, teachers who say they activate schemata, say they don’t teach bottom-up skills and teachers who say they teach bottom-up skills say they don’t activate schemata. That bottom-up skills are neglected is not a given, however, but it is only the explicitly stated practice of a large minority. So less than half of the teachers I picked up through social media, the freaks who talk about teaching in their free time, teach bottom-up skills explicitly.
Why? “It’s not in the book” actually isn’t the answer. It is usually in the book, but it’s mislabelled as ‘pronunciation’. It’s a chance to practice what John Field (2008) calls ‘microlistening’ (Field, 2008, (ch. 5, p. 19/33), or decoding and practicing listening to features of connected speech in relative isolation to the rest of a larger text. It’s not always fantastic, but I bet, based on a study I did with Japan-based English teachers (Jones, 2016) on beliefs about pronunciation teaching, that it’s omitted by about 20% of teachers, and only taught at word level, with anything longer than phrase level being omitted by roughly half of teachers.
Why? I don’t have evidence for what follows, it’s just a theory, but I think the schema activation picture is a bit more attractive due to the nice flashy image, potentially with a vocabulary bank, compared to a half page made up of IPA characters to target aspects of speech such as weak forms or even scaffolding the decoding of unfamiliar lexical words. Unattractive books (or books that might look difficult due to a lack of images or actually using IPA) won’t be published for fear that they won’t sell, so learners and teachers who may want to use a book are left with the status quo. And the bottom-up listening masquerading as ‘pronunciation’ doesn’t get covered because it isn’t attractive, isn’t as easy to teach as a grammar exercise, and as Ableeva and Stranks (2013) state:

[T]he real purpose of many listening materials, then, appears quite clearly to be one or more of the following: topic extensions; exemplification of grammar; exemplification of functional or lexical items of language; lead-in to a learner speaking activity. All of these
are worthy and defensible aims, but they are not aims which are tied intrinsically to
improving learners’ ability to process spoken language.
(Ableeva & Stranks, 2013. p. 206).

So, it would be nice to have some teachers’ books to tell teachers to make more of the ‘pronunciation’ sections. It would be nice to have the ‘pronunciation’ sections labelled as ‘phonology’ or ‘listening’. It might just then join the dots for a lot of teachers, particularly novice teachers, to build learners skills to help them tackle longer listening texts with more confidence.


Ableeva, R. & Stranks, J. “Listening in another language – research and materials” in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2013) Applied Linguistics and Materials Development. London: Bloomsbury.
Field, J. (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.
Jones (2016) Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices Regarding Listening and Pronunciation in EFL, Explorations in Teacher Development, 23, 1. 11-17 JALT TD SIG.
Jones (2017) English Language Teachers’ Beliefs and Stated Practices Regarding Second
Language Listening Pedagogy and Alignment with Research. Unpublished MA Dissertation. University of Portsmouth.

32 Replies to “Against the Coursebook Flow for Better Listening”

  1. hi Marc
    this is a general problem in language learning, that is, how to balance meaning and form?
    recently tools like tubequizard have allowed a workable compromise possible i feel; e.g. i often start a video listening (and focus on what the students make of video, i.e. meaning) then follow it with a focus on some form via tubequizard.
    but how to handle “real” conversational listening in a classroom way is still a challenge;
    note i have not checked a recent coursebook maybe things have improved with them?

    1. Cheers Mura,
      Out of the book one naturally has a flow that isn’t intuitively the same as a book flow, so it may be easier to be better for learners just because you don’t have a book available.
      Navigate, I have *heard* is much better. English File is getting better but could be better still. Ditto Face2face.

    2. By the way, I often edit a bit of a listening text using Ocen Audio or Audacity, then use that as the microlistening (much like grep). It is a bit of work, mind.

      1. there is audiogrep but i never got it working well enough in my cases but might have another go at using it []; for video with subtitles videogrep worts very well for microlistenings []

      2. Hi Marc,
        Do you think you could do a post on this (editing text to use as microlistening)? I’d be interested to read about an example.

  2. Activating the schema has become another mechanical, and quite boring tool in the ELT teachers’ toolbox in my opinion – almost as though a ‘schema’ is like a light switch you can switch on in the learners’ minds at will. It would also seem obvious that some sort of mental schema is in operation, well, all the time – so I’m not sure what advantage it gives you (maybe in terms of mental processing for reading etc. then yes). I guess it comes from research in psychology or cognitive science which seems to inform a lot of our practice.
    And if the ‘schema’ we’re trying to activate is individual – which it must be if it is constructed in each persons’ head – then why do we work with the same materials with each student. Surely it would work better if, for example, each student could choose their own elements i.e. pictures which they would like to talk about? (Yes there are different pictures in a coursebook, but that many to choose from on a page.)
    And is there a difference between schema and ‘stuff you’ve learnt before’?

  3. Funny how a 10-second Google search brings up a criticism of the ‘schema’ concept. Though haven’t heard anyone question ‘schema’ in 10 years of working in ELT:
    ‘A basic concept in most theories in cognitive psychology, as well as in many versions of constructivism, is that of the schema. … It is now more or less taken for granted that schemata exist. But there are logical inconsistencies in applications of the concept and its usefulness within educational theories can be questioned. The concept also lends itself to manipulatory psychological practices, illustrated by the example of a US advertising company. The paper ends with a suggestion that we return to Aristotle and a more phenomenological approach to the questions of learning and knowledge formation.’

    1. Hi Paul. Thanks for the link, I’ll read the article in a bit.
      I’m not as sceptical as you about the schema concept. I think it works as a model. Unfortunately, I think it is overdone, and as I mentioned, you don’t always face totally predictable situations. Also, I could be wrong with the references here but I believe that it’s either Field (2008) or Goh, C. (1997 – her PhD thesis) where too much prediction was found to have learners just thinking they had heard their predictions. I think it can be useful, sometimes, to help transfer universal situational knowledge, but every listening? I doubt it.
      Basically, schema are easy to teach but I don’t think it necessarily links to development of skill proficiency or phonological recognition’. I think they are also easy enough to differentiate: the omnipresent mind maps (another pet hate, of many, actually).
      Anyway, cheers again!

  4. Hi Marc,
    thank you for sharing this interesting thought. I have to say I am one of those teachers guilty of overlooking bottom-up listening skills. If I have to cut something out of a coursebook unit, 60-70% of the times what gets left out if the “pronunciation” or “help with listening” section.
    I have recently had a sort of wake-up call that this is wrong: a 121 student at pre-intermediate level that has been studying with me for more than a year has recently complained that she’s made a lot of progress so far, but that listening is the hardest part for her. So much so that she often switches off when we are doing some listening activity, and complains that she didn’t understand anything.
    Even before reading your post, I was starting to believe this is — if not totally at least partially — due to the fact that I’ve neglected connected speech and bottom-up listening skills with her.
    I’ll take it as a personal teaching resolution to work more on bottom-up listening skills. I used to believe they are really hard to teach and concentrating on features of connected speech in class is a waste of time (after all, nobody taught me about connected speech until I started CELTA), but after this experience I think I have changed my mind.
    Thank you again for bringing this up.

    1. Hi Giulia,
      Thanks for your comment. I don’t honestly think there’s a reason to feel guilty: how much training/education did you get about it.
      I did a lot of reading about it only *because* I realised that my teaching of listening wasn’t really teaching very much at all. About five years on I feel like there is still so much to find out but my teaching is better after trying a few things. Don’t be downbeat, be curious (anger about lack of information is optional 🙂 )!

      1. Would you be able to suggest some useful reading on the topic? The only one I have in my Delta reading list is Penny Ur’s Teaching Listening Comprehension, which is both outdated and only devotes half a page to top-down listening skills. 🙁

        1. The John Field book is a revelation. Michael Rost’s Teaching and Researching L2 listening is good but dense. There’s a book by Tony Lynch that a friend would recommend, too.

  5. Navigate is the first textbook series I’ve come across where the pron section (here called ‘unlock the code’) comes before the listening. A very conscious attempt to address bottom-up skills.

    1. Yes, thank you Jenni. I have heard good things about Navigate. I wonder how much it conforms (or not) to other coursebook norms. I am going to try to get hold of a student’s and teacher’s book (and workbook if possible, if there is one).

  6. Hi Marc,
    nice post. I found Field’s book a bit of an eye-opener on this. I teach on Celta and Delta and am probably guilty of propagating an overly top-down ‘comprehension’ approach on Celta, while on Delta we generally have to open candidates’ eyes to the fact that this makes listening easier for learners but doesn’t necessarily develop their listening skills.
    I think the origins of the comprehension approach are responsible, before about the 80s and the Communicative Approach I suppose listening didn’t happen much and any listening there was would have been listen and repeat drill. Communicative Approach brought the idea that the message of the text as a whole was more important, and at the same time learners’ principle issues stemmed from panic about listening and the feeling that they have to understand every word.
    So teaching and teacher training has emphasised the importance of a top-down approach because it gets over the fear and focuses on the message. And schemata help with understanding top-down.
    However, we seem to have forgotten that in real-life we use both top-down and bottom-up listening, and that bottom-up skills help when you hit something difficult or unexpected. I don’t think it’s wrong to develop top-down skills but they should be paired with bottom-up ones.

    1. Hi Cathy,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Much like Field doesn’t want people to abandon the comprehension approach, I don’t want people to think top-down is bad. It’s the massive imbalance between top-down and bottom-up that bugs me.

      1. Gosh, you’re quick to get back!
        I think you, I and Field are all in accordance with need for a greater balance. And was just reading your paper (from your bibliography).
        Had an afterthought, which is that my own listening skills in Czech have developed mainly through watching TV in Czech – no teacher has ever tried to teach me micro-listening skills and I haven’t had formal lessons in the language for something like 13 or 14 years. So maybe just lots of practice does get you there (I’d say my listening in Czech is about C1) but perhaps would have been more efficient with some bottom-up training too.

        1. I always try to get back to comments quickly as I get anxious about people thinking I forgot them, or forgetting to check comments. Anyway…
          My Japanese listening is pretty decent – I’m B2/C1 – but I have lived here for ages and get tons of L2 input at home, and negotiate meaning frequently. For most EFL students this is a luxury they don’t have so probably raising awareness of how stuff that sounds odd is systematic (roughly) may help. Thanks for actually reading my paper. It is a precursor to the research I just did for my MA dissertation, which I am trying to edit into a paper. In the meantime, expect a flurry of listening posts!

  7. Hi Marc!
    This is such a great topic and post – I started the bottoms-up approach pretty late, about five years ago, and after I had attended a John Potts workshop (he has an excellent blog with amazing resources, by the way). I saw how much it really helps the students and want to keep doing it, even though we are pressed for time very often, due to exams and so on – which can be annoying, as I feel we could do so much more.
    I was going to ask the same as Vedrana – I am so happy a Part 2 is coming!
    Random note: it is no wonder that you passed your MA dissertation in flying colours : )
    Have a great week,

  8. Late to the party as I was doing my Delta at the time. It seems like I am an anomaly – I teach bottom-up listening skills and still think activating schemata is important. I disagreed with that particular point by Field in my Delta Listening lesson in fact. So did my tutor so I’m a bit surprised by your survey!

    1. Hi Elisabeth. Thanks for your comment. I also teach using schema activation but only when I feel there is a need, not because it’s a routine. Sometimes it’s needed, I think, because you would normally prepare for a high-stakes L2 situation. For more unpredictable or free conversations, I think time could be spent on better strategies, to be honest. If you disagree, I would love to hear more because it helps to get another point of view.
      Thanks again!

      1. Yes, I think it would be interesting to compare. I started a few notes for a blog post. To help me clarify where you’re coming from, would you differentiate between ‘activating schemata’ and ‘setting context’? Because I’m thinking setting context naturally activates schemata. For example, a lead-in on a similar topic to the text.

        1. Setting context definitely activates schemata. I sometimes ask what words will come up and how *can* they sound. This gives me the chance to expand prototype parameters beyond citation forms and connected speech in lexical chunks. I nearly always teach decoding as a reactive focus on form so rarely use lead ins, to be honest.

    1. You’re right. I normally just set it up saying “You’re going to listen to people talking about…” then ask students to just listen first, usually summarise or complete a task. After that I usually try to do microlistening and focus on form. I don’t find lead ins useful but I teach huge classes usually, so it’s probably one of my bees in my bonnet.

      1. Thanks! I have a better idea where you’re coming from and some food for thought there. Let me think through my rationale, check my notes and see if I can up with something more thorough (loving not having to stick to Delta word limits now!).

        1. You should email me. I would love to collaborate with you on something about listening. I have a half-baked idea. If you are interested/have time.

Comments are closed.